The long road to recovery for St. Xavier offensive lineman and Clemson signee Matt Bockhorst

SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Matt Bockhorst doesn’t mind pulling out his iPhone to show how he missed his final year of high school football.

A video clip of his knee injury at the Nike Opening event in Oregon last July is eight seconds. It's just enough time to change the trajectory of a senior season filled with so much promise for the All-American St. Xavier offensive lineman.

Yet he was also able to revel in a stunning state championship run his teammates were able to pull off against the odds.

Matt Bockhorst was an All-American at St. Xavier High School. (Mike Noyes | TriStateFootball.com)

That dichotomy is just the start of Matt Bockhorst’s story -- a series of ups and downs that have taken him from the top of the high school football game to merely an injured fan, watching the Bombers became the first Ohio football team to win a state title after losing five regular-season games. And the next chapter will be becoming a member of the national champion Clemson Tigers. That still-in-progress journey back to the top is a study in hard work and determination.

A nightmare scenario

Even though it took two days for a doctor in Cincinnati to officially tell Bockhorst he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, Bockhorst knew all along something was very wrong. He wanted to believe the doctor was joking as tears welled up in his eyes.

But he knew that day walking out of the locker room in Beaverton that this wasn’t just a strained ligament.

Participating without pads or helmets, Bockhorst was a left guard in this particular drill behind the TV towers on the Nike campus July 10.

Bockhorst soaked in everything at the prestigious camp from the instructors and other ultra-talented players.

“Smart kid obviously,” said former NFL offensive lineman LaCharles Bentley, a family friend who worked with Bockhorst at the event held for the nation's top high school football players. “He is a typical tough Ohio kid. He always wanted to know why. He was able to grasp so many things.”

Matt Bockhorst prepares weights as part of his training at Midwest Athletic Performance. (Phil Didion | WCPO Contributor)

That was the point of The Opening. He was there with other area players including his close friend, St. Xavier quarterback Sean Clifford. Colerain defensive back Amir Riep (Ohio State) and Moeller tight end Matt Dotson (Michigan State) joined the St. X stars in a photo.

Bockhorst couldn’t have imagined losing his senior season just three days later. He went back to plant his left leg during a pass-blocking drill. When he turned, he heard a pop.

Agony followed. Choice words were tossed out. Football dreams were put on hold.

“The thing that flashed through my mind is: ‘I’m going to miss my senior year,’” Bockhorst said later. “That was absolutely my worst nightmare. You go to those camps and you just hope to come out healthy. I was the one guy out of 166 who didn’t.”

It was the start of a lengthy recovery process.

Gaining perspective

More than eight months after he had surgery on his left knee, the Clemson signee has plenty of reasons to smile this spring.

His iPhone is a mechanism to cope. The weight room and workout sessions are getting him ready for when he arrives on Clemson’s campus June 25.

The video clip is a daily reminder of what the 18-year-old Bockhorst has had to overcome physically and mentally.

“There is no way I will get over the mental aspect of getting back out onto the field unless I face that fear head on,” Bockhorst told WCPO.com earlier this month.

 

 

“I know a lot of people who kind of look at me sideways when I show them the video or talk about how I watch it pretty often. But that’s just how I was raised I guess. You can’t run from it.”

The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder couldn't escape the reality of a major injury even if he wanted to.

“With this major injury it’s a different kind of adversity,” Bockhorst said in February. “It’s something that mentally when you want your body to cooperate and you want to be able to train, you want to be able to put in that work and it’s just not letting you. It kind of defeats you in a way.”

With football on the shelf this past winter, the ACL injury opened Bockhorst’s eyes to a greater life lesson. Something he couldn’t have envisioned last summer.

“I think it creates something in you,” Bockhorst said. “It creates a drive. It creates more of a respect for the game and a respect for the fact that you are not going to playing this game for the rest of your life.”

Everything happens for a reason

Mike Bockhorst felt sick to his stomach as he prematurely ended his work-related conference call around 8:30 a.m. July 12.

Mike, a regional sales manager for a medical device company, typically works from home. He just received a text from his wife, Lora, from the doctor's office about Matt's knee. The dread became a reality.

“It was the first time in his 17 years he was hit with adversity,” Mike said.

Mike, who played linebacker from 1988-90 at the University of Cincinnati, was with his middle son at The Opening that day in Oregon. He’d watched the injury as it happened. Mike knew it would be a difficult road ahead.

"He knew the work I put in,” Matt said. “He knew the Sunday mornings when people were in bed that I was up working the entire offseason. He was there with me.”

Mike and Lora talked in their Liberty Township home about how they would help Matt cope with the reality of not playing football his senior season.

It was going to be a day-by-day  process. They thought Matt initially handled it pretty well.

Matt returned to Midwest Athletic Performance in Mason within two weeks to work out. He entered the facility on crutches and with his leg propped up the first week. A lot of reps with light weights built up his confidence the first two weeks. 

“He was bound and determined,” MAP owner John Dickhaus said.

Matt Bockhorst training at Midwest Athletic Performance. The scars show from knee surgery he had to repair his anterior cruciate ligament. (Phil Didion | WCPO Contributor)

But the ups and downs of St. X's season would take their toll. Matt could only watch.

After the ACL tear, Mike made some of his first phone calls to St. X coach Steve Specht, Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell and Dickhaus.

Caldwell assured the Bockhorst family that Matt’s scholarship was 100 percent intact despite the injury. The Tigers saw two or three ACL injuries each season. There was no cause to worry from Clemson’s perspective.

“That was very comforting to hear the way they approached it,” Mike said.

Dickhaus empathized when he learned the news. But he knew in time circumstances would improve.

“It was going to be a huge year for Matt,” Dickhaus said. “And when he tore his ACL it was kind of one of those heartbreaking things. It was his senior year. You knew this was their big shot to go all the way and win state.”

Specht was shaken up by the news in a phone call that afternoon. The Bombers also lost senior left guard Dominic Altimari to a torn ACL at an earlier summer college camp.

July would be the start of a significant number of injuries the Bombers would deal with the entire season.

St. X had 25 starters or potential starters who missed at least one game due to injury, according to St. X head trainer Michael Gordon. St. X had a cumulative total of 137 games lost due to injury, which equates to a little more than nine players on average who were or would have been starters missing every single game due to injury this past season.

Specht spoke with Bockhorst and Altimari after their season-ending injuries occurred.

“I told them the first day, look, it’s sad and heartbreaking, but it’s not tragic,” Specht said.

Specht emphasized life perspective to Bockhorst in late July. He reminded him of another standout St. X offensive lineman named Matt James, who played several years before Bockhorst arrived on North Bend Road. James died after he fell from a fifth-floor hotel balcony in Panama City, Florida while on spring break in April 2010.

“I said there is a picture of Matt James in our locker room,” Specht said at the time. “I said that’s tragic. There is a great sadness in me that has never left because of (Matt’s death in 2010). You are going to go on and have a great career at Clemson and you are going to have children, God willing and on and on. I said, ‘This is heartbreaking’ and that was the message I sent to the kids. I said, ‘Who is going to take the next spot?' That is the beauty of living. That’s what we do at this level -- we teach these kids.”

A season for the ages

The St. X players heard the criticism when the team started the season 0-2. Alumni took jabs at the team on Twitter.

The Bombers lost to St. John Bosco (California) 34-0 in a nationally televised opener at Nippert Stadium. St. X lost to visiting Colerain in overtime in Week 2. Questions took center stage. Injuries mounted.

Matt Bockhorst was experiencing his own struggles. He questioned why the injury happened to him. He could’ve made an impact, he thought to himself.

The supportive text messages were numerous when he was injured in July, but trickled off during the season.

Life had to proceed with or without Bockhorst in uniform. He knew he was obligated to be a leader. But sometimes he just felt frustrated watching teammates in practice. He heard some chants directed his way on the sideline from opposing student sections.

“There were times when I would want to shut people out,” Bockhorst said. “Or there were times when I wanted to be alone.”

Just four days after the Bombers’ first win at Mentor, Bockhorst received his honorary Under Armour All-America Game jersey knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to play in January’s nationally televised all-star game in Orlando. He was still in physical therapy. It was difficult to cope with missing the opportunity to watch practice on days he had to be at therapy. 

Still, he was appreciative of the All-American Game invite. Clifford would be there at the Citrus Bowl Jan. 1. 

“After my injury I’ve had quite a few conversations with Coach Specht,” Bockhorst said in September.

“He would always tell me, 'Who you are makes you good at football.' Not being able to play this season -- that’s something I’ve really had to let sink in and really take that to heart. I don’t get a chance to play Friday nights. Being a football player is not only what I am now.”

Bockhorst also made the decision to fulfill his captain duties even if he couldn’t play.

“When he went down at the Opening it was heartbreaking to him and to me as well,” Clifford said. “We both shared that because we couldn’t have the senior season that we wanted. But he stuck by me throughout the whole season and it paid off. He’s my best friend, so I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Three weeks after receiving the Under Armour jersey, Bockhorst experienced one of the tougher moments of the season in a loss at La Salle.

The Lancers scored 14 unanswered points in the second half en route to the win. The La Salle players grabbed the King of the Road Trophy on the St. X side.

After the game, Bockhorst gingerly made his way to the locker room. But the coaches called all the players back to sing the alma mater. Bockhorst couldn’t make it back in time.

“I remember walking up to the locker room just so frustrated,” he said. “Just frustrated that we lost but for some reason me not being able to go back and sing the alma mater just felt like a physical divide. It felt like I was a physical outcast on the team.”

The Bombers lost another two straight weeks. But St. X got into the postseason with a 5-5 record. The Bombers didn’t lose again.

“People forget when the record is 5-5 -- that’s five losses,” Bockhorst said. “That’s half the season is a Friday night that it’s not the outcome you want. For me, since football is such a big part of my life, although I wasn’t necessarily playing in those games. Us winning or losing that week was either a booster or dragged me down a little bit mentally.”

The Bombers earned a rematch with Cleveland St. Ignatius in the state final. Bockhorst had dressed in full uniform since the second round of the postseason. He would do so again in Columbus.

On the precipice on his final high school game Dec. 2, St. X had the day off from school. Meanwhile, Bockhorst was hopeful to run with his teammates later that night.

He would be able to jog, but a morning strength test proved he wasn’t ready to run out of the Ohio Stadium tunnel that night.

It was especially disappointing given the fact that Matt’s younger brother, Hopewell Junior High eighth-grader Patrick Bockhorst, was a ball boy for the Bombers and could join the players in running onto the field prior to introductions. Patrick has a gene for a less severe form of dwarfism, but has played football for Hopewell and plays lacrosse this spring. 

“I was crushed because there was so much excitement and so much positive energy throughout the program,” Bockhorst said. “It just seemed like there was no way we could lose the game; I kind of felt like that about my knee. I felt like it was going to be good. That I was going to push through, everything was going to be OK. But the sad reality was my knee wasn’t OK.”

Mike Bockhorst said it was likely the most challenging day of the season for the family.

“I think even mentally for him now, to think back to that state championship day, it was so bittersweet in so many ways,” Mike said.

Still, Matt celebrated with his teammates in Columbus. He doused Specht with the water cooler on the field. The Bombers became the first five-loss team to win a state football championship in Ohio.

St. Xavier QB Sean Clifford (14) celebrates Ohio Division I championship with teammates. (Mike Noyes | TriStateFootball.com)

“It will never be repeated,” Specht said later. “As I said all the time, it’s one for the ages. What a great group of kids.”

No one could take away the title away from Bockhorst or any of his injured teammates.

“No one is saying the St. X Bombers are going to win state,” Bockhorst said. “So when you do it and you prove everybody wrong and you see the fans in the stands and you see how big the student section is, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Ready for Clemson

Matt Bockhorst sat at a large table in the St. Xavier library Feb. 1 and smiled for the cameras. National Signing Day arrived and he wore a white dress shirt with an orange tie to match his Clemson hat from Nike. His teammates sat around him.

The previous six-and-a-half months had been grueling at times but he was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

He’d run before school for 30 minutes on a treadmill at St. Xavier on Monday mornings. He’d go to MAP for upper-body lifting in the afternoon.

On Tuesday and Thursday, Bockhorst had physical therapy after school. He’d go to the gym for a lower-body workout before getting home at 8 p.m.

On Wednesday and Friday, he’d run and work out. Saturday was reserved for a lower-body workout. Sunday was for position work. He could never have enough footwork.

“Looking back, starting out I wouldn’t have thought I would be at Clemson,” Bockhorst said. “There were some schools I really wanted to go to -- childhood dreams, schools I really liked. Clemson was not one of those schools. Now in the position I am in today on Signing Day 2017 I can honestly say that the place I am signing to -- Clemson University -- going to play football for the Tigers is the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and this is no exception to that.”

Bockhorst will be just 40 minutes from his brother, former St. Xavier offensive lineman Jonathan Bockhorst, who is a sophomore offensive lineman at Furman. That was intentional.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates with the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy Jan. 9, 2017. Matt Bockhorst will play for the national champion Tigers. (Jamie Squire | Getty Images)

“Matt comes from a great football family,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told WCPO.com. “He knows what it takes to make it and he has the work ethic. He is all-in with our program.”

Matt earned every bit of his scholarship. Now he's preparing for another opportunity and looking ahead.

“I’m a fan,” Bentley said. “I’m rooting for him, and I hope everything works out.”

It seems everyone wants to know if he will sit out his first season as a redshirt.

“He has worked hard on his rehab and we expect him to be healthy and ready to go when we start practice in August," Swinney said. "How much will he contribute as a freshman, only time will tell. He won’t be here until June, so like any freshman, we will see how he adapts. It is rare for a true freshman to come in and contribute in the offensive line, but we had three do it last year as true freshmen.”

A year of perseverance has paid off. It’s a different road. But Bockhorst is confident joining the reigning national champions.

“It’s as much of a challenge as anything,” he said. “I’m a strong competitor. I love people that are going to push me. That is what I am going to get. You are playing for the defending national champions and that holds a lot of weight. That means something to a lot of people.

"So coming into this summer it’s not time to slack off. It’s not time to give the excuse ‘I’m just a freshman.’ It’s time to work. It’s time to get after it.”

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